Kansas City, 12:23 p.m.
As the train raced close to Kansas City that afternoon, Alexis found she was actually sad to bid farewell to her new friend, Donnie O’Banyon, alias The Baron. She had a preconceived notion of this brash ballplayer and had initially used his forward personality to erect a barrier between herself and Theo Colson, who had attached himself to her in St. Louis.
Donnie, for his part, was aware of her manipulation of him, but relished the brief role he was allowed to play–and with great gusto. He had scrimmaged his boys to create a perpetual screen of distraction between her and Theodore Colson. Alexis acknowledged Donnie’s motives also likely allowed for time together with the lovely detective.
Having thrown Theo off and getting Alexis to himself, Donnie did not at first try to capture her attentions directly. In the beginning, he strutted and charmed the passengers aboard, making it impossible for her to not see what grand, good company he was.
Upon reaching New Haven in the early hours, Donnie had convinced his new dear friend, Goldia, of the humanitarian benefits of her “coming up off the ham” he was guarding for her. By the time the train rolled out of that station, three loaves of bread, a knife and a jar of German mustard were pooled together from the crowd and Donnie had made sure every rider to a man had a sandwich in hand.
Theo, of course, declined.
Coffee and sweet tea had been connived at no cost from the dining car. A fine jug of whiskey was summoned mysteriously for those who preferred such refreshment. O’Banyon played host of the moveable soiree as he orchestrated the entire repast and dispatched his lieutenants to that end.
When they rolled into Jefferson City, Donnie had become quite the colorful carnival conductor. If he was not telling a thrilling, yet hilarious baseball anecdote, he was found coercing an impromptu joke-telling session from one of the other players. When the gangly first baseman had delivered the laugh-line to a tale about a certain weak-eyed Umpire and several chickens who had been let to run about the ball field, Alexis had even spied Theo chuckling and shaking his head.
The lateness—or more accurately, the earliness—of the hours did not darken the reverie. At one point, a porter was summoned to turn up the gas lamps so a rather heated card game could continue. Every man, woman and child aboard the train knew this was one of those special and rare episodes in their lives resonating with spontaneous goodwill and grand human connection. A wild and wonderful night spent with total strangers they would remember the rest of their days.
Donnie O’Banyon had done all of that. He could not stand idly by while a good time might be had.
At reaching Sedalia, however, the natural limits of human joviality had ebbed slightly, as well as the limits of lamp gas. The porter turned down the lights as those who still had the surge of camaraderie played a dark game of cards or chatted in low tones to their newfound friends as the drone of the wheels clacking along the tracks set the other tired souls to sleep.
Goldia could fend off slumber no longer and, after lamenting her tiredness, she slept soundly with the re-swaddled remains of the ham wedged against the window as a smokey pillow.
Alexis and Donnie were left to acquaint themselves more intimately beside their slumbering chaperone. Theo managed to keep his sleepy eyes open, turning to stare at the pair every mile or so.
“He’s going to have a sore neck by the time we reach Kansas City,” O’Banyon commented.
“Even though the train is moving, he thinks I may risk my life to jump off and escape him,” Alexis replied.
“So you say you know him and yet he acts as if it were more than that—he said you were traveling together, if I remember rightly.”
“Yes, he did say that, but as I also said, we are not traveling together. It is more of a business arrangement and I am being watched closely to make sure I am doing my job.”
“You work for him?”
“Not necessarily. He is a client of mine and perhaps not for long at that.”
“Please, tell me more,” Donnie said with his charming smile. He rearranged himself to show he was settled in, his jade eyes welcoming her story. He stared right at her to the point she felt not replying would be rude. She wanted to tell him everything for some reason. She wanted to rest her burden—even temporarily—and this open-hearted fellow was a fine person to rest it with. After all, he would be a stranger again when they arrived in Kansas City.
She told him the basics about the case, Emma and then Theodore, and though he asked earnest questions along the way, for the most part he did not interrupted her story. The more she told, the more drawn in he became—emotionally and physically, as he leaned nearer to her the closer to the end she came. She was aware he could, in all possibility, be employing a rascally womanizing tactic by appearing so enthralled, but she knew as long as she was aware of this possibility, it was safe to proceed.
“I have no idea why I’m telling you all this. We barely know each other.”
“There, now, lass. My dear mother said I was born with the gift of gab, but also the big ears of my late father.”
The several instances when she did mention Theo’s name, he was usually staring right at her, his eyes accusing her of betrayal.
Donnie noticed her reticence setting firmer with every glance at Theo. “Would you like me to see he takes a little nap so’s you can continue?”
“No, no. That won’t be necessary.” She looked at Goldia with her fancy traveling hat and her ham pillow. She stared past her, through the window.
The morning light was gaining on the train no matter how fast they roared west. Small details took shape as they sped by. Silhouette of a grain silo here, a tilting old barn there.
She realized the only way she can betray another was if she actually cared about that person. As it stood, she cared far more about Emma than Theo and his case. The whirlwind and magical night this O’Banyon fellow had created was fresh in her mind and she knew if she did not open up to him before the full light of day took hold, the spell would be broken.
She was sure she would never unburden her mind again in such a free and easy manner. She finished the tale and looked at her confessor in relief.
She expected neither solace or advice, just the O’Banyon ears were enough. The deep green eyes and easy grin were icing on the cake.
“The girl, Emma needs my help, and despite her uncle’s ‘help,’ I will do everything in my power to aid her.”
“I understand that, Miss Free, but what with the uncle, the other three running around God knows where, and the insane fellow, it sounds as if you will need to be in three places at once.”
“Perhaps, but with my father in St. Louis, I am able to check in through the telegraph offices. Still, it does gnaw at me that I may be hundreds of miles off the mark here.”
“Every once in a while, the ball takes a bad hop. You have to be quick on your feet so you can adjust and field it.”
She smiled. There was more to this fellow than chasing around a rawhide-stitched ball through the grass.
Donnie looked at her and then at Theo. “It does not make matters easier when you have a noisome bulldog with a broken nose hounding your every step. Perhaps I can assist you when the time comes to throw him off the trail.”
“I appreciate it, but I would not want to put you out any further than—”
“Now, let us have any of that talk. It makes me feel as if I were a chivalrous knight instead of some good-time roustabout ball-player. It is also a rare pleasure for me to come to the aid of such a lovely woman as yourself. ”
Against her will and to her mild frustration, Alexis felt herself blush at the compliment. She hoped it was too dark yet in the car for him to notice, yet he noticed everything. “Very well, Mr. O’Banyon, we shall discuss it later. This seems like the perfect time for you to tell me about yourself. I fear I have dominated the conversation.”
“Oh, there is not much to tell, Ms. Free. I am simply a grand oaf, a spectacular buffoon. Though, I must admit, I am a subject which I can and will speak upon at great length if urged . . .”
“Please, consider yourself urged.”
And so he did speak of himself at length, though with a charming tone of humility. She had heard the rumors of the lady-killer. She had read exploits of his alleged debauchery and financial frivolity. She realized that in truth, she had read and re-read so much about him, she could have been accused of mild obsession. Alexis read everything, though, and not just about this famous sportsman. Still, she wondered how she remembered so many details of him but could not recall the name of the bank-robbing ring-leader she had helped bring to justice recently. When he spoke of his life, it was in a self-deprecating manner she did not expect if the tabloids were to be believed. He expressed regret at some life choices, not staying in Ireland being one.
Again, she wondered if his humility were some ploy to lure her off the primrose path, but she would rather believe in this Donnie O’Banyon than the ones in the news. The magic of the night may wear off, but that did not mean she would shoo it away too soon.
Becoming a baseball player seemed to be another of his regrets. “Sure and I earn a wholloping sum, but with so much money comes a large feeling of shame; what have I done to help others while I run around the little white bags?”
“I can tell you one woman who would be extremely the poorer if you had not chosen to play baseball,” Alexis offered.
Donnie brightened and sat up straighter, “Oh, really now?” he said with a gushing smile. “And who might ye be speaking of?”
With a devilish grin and knowing full well Donnie hoped it was herself she was referring to, Alexis pointed to Goldia Dodson, who was shamelessly snoring beside her.
“Oh, Miss Free, you are toying with me!”
“Oh, I think you brighten up her days. She probably looks forward with great joy to seeing you play. You make people happy whether you think so or not.”
They shared a laugh at her teasing, but Donnie continued his own tale. He explained the fact that the Brownstockings were dropped from the league last year, and were currently a barnstorming outfit. He also informed her that even if they were bought and reinstated in one of the other leagues, he was not sure he would keep playing.
“This is a young man’s game and I am losing that race. I have perhaps one or two more good years afore they start to trading me about. I need to start thinking about my future and, to an old Irishman like me, that means roots.”
She admired his forward thinking, but disagreed with his calling himself old and told him so.
“True, I’m in me prime, but this game takes much out of you,” he said. “The only thing it doesn’t take out is money from me wallet. Then again, I’ve always had luck with money. Why, just the other night, at the Hotel Crawford, I lost a full twenty dollars to a fellow what worked there, and you know what? I couldn’t pay him! I did not say I wouldn’t pay him, mind you, I couldn’t pay him. Here I lose fair and square, but since my money was in the hotel safe, I couldn’t pay him till morning. The morning sun rises as expected and the odd bird had flown the coop. Who in the world would walk away from twenty dollars? See how I mean it? I can’t even give all my gold away.”
Alexis saw in her mind the pieces of a puzzle. As they danced about they swirled to the center of her mind and fell into place. “You say the Hotel Crawford?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” he replied. “Though it is a mite bit extravagant, I sometimes stay there as I like the few employees I know. There are these two fellows—one is a cook, and the other is—well, I don’t know for sure what he does, but he is quite fun. Their names are—”
“—Silas McDonough and Hercules Bennet,” Alexis finished.
A look of astonishment and a hint of suspicion washed over his face. “Why, that is amazing, Miss Free. You really are a superb detective.”
She laughed. “No, Mister O’Banyon, it simply appears our worlds are held together by the same threads.”
“Hold, now. You mean to be saying these two fellows who are helping your Emma are my friends from the hotel?”
“Incredible, but true, Mister O’Banyon.”
“Please, Miss Free, seeing as how we are sharing the same friends, can we at least be a wee bit less formal,” O’Banyon said, leaning in a touch closer.
She indulged her own urges and did not pull away from him. “As long as I don’t have to address you as ‘The Baron,’ you may call me Alexis.”
“Please, Alexis, call me Donnie.”
“Agreed, though I must say I have not personally met your friends,” Alexis said. “I have met their female friend, Mrs. Rowland.”
“I noticed you did not say you had the ‘pleasure’ of meeting her,” Donnie said grinning, “She is a tough nut at first, but is a sweet woman once you get to know her. It takes a while, to be sure.”
“I do not see her and I getting friendly–no matter how long we know each other.”
“You are not kidding there. If I had not broken up a fight between Hercules and one of the bellboys, I think she would never have deigned to speak to me.”
At this, they shared a too-loud laugh, considering the sleeping neighbors, but it was full daylight and a commiserative joke was not looked down upon—except by Theo, who shot a look of disdain. Alexis felt a twinge of professional guilt but remembered what a despicable and violent man he really was and that settled that.
Donnie sat quietly for a moment staring out the window and Alexis let him be.
Finally he spoke. “You know, I almost became an employee of your father.”
Alexis was surprised but not shocked, for her father had many informants on his payroll and a famous ball player, though unusual, was not unheard of.
“Is that so? Perhaps you could explain.”
“You know Liberty Investigations was hired to look into the Louisville Grey Scandal, do you not?”
She recalled the events, but since she was not directly involved in the case, she had been informed, but only in a limited fashion. “Yes, go on.”
“Not much to tell, really, except your father interviewed me about the men responsible for the point fixing. They were a couple fellows on our team who were traded in from the Louisville Greys. I told him what I knew, which wasn’t much, but your father and I hit it off and he offered me a job keeping an ear out for anything else that may come up.”
“Why didn’t you accept? I mean that was fairly recently and you said you were looking to be done with baseball.”
He shook his head and drew his lips tight. “It seemed too much like being a rat. Spying on my teammates and reporting to your father about it would not sit well with me.”
“But my father is discreet and—”
“I have nothing but good things to say about your father, because he helped root out the scoundrels involved and made sure those innocents surrounding them were left out of it. Some of the other investigators were more like the pitchfork and noose types.”
Donnie looked on at a few of his teammates sitting in the seats ahead. “No, even if I would have left the team right then to work for him, the question would have been raised about when I started informing on them. Some would have thought I was squealing since the start. That’s a foul stench that don’t come off too easy. I have no problem exposing those men who put a taint on the game. The ones that make Goldia and others think we are all crooked. That I cannot abide, but after those fellows were punished, the idea of being on the payroll seemed dodgy. Thing is, the men involved never even played one game with us, but since they were on our rosters when their cheating was discovered, the Browns were brought down with them. We stuck together and kept playing exhibitions and such, and we hear rumors of reinstatement, but until then we’re a puppy without a home.”
“One thing I do regret about not taking him up on the offer, though . . .” His eyes shimmered in the gaslight.
“Really, what is that?”
“I might have met you a bit sooner instead of just as you are darting off to God knows where out West.”
Her laugh was too high-pitched and she winced inside. She hated it when she heard a woman laugh coyly as she had, but this man peeled away her resolve so easily.
“That would have made me your boss . . .” She let that knock around his mind, hoping to distract him from further compliments.
He grinned and placed his hand boldly upon hers. “True, but as far as bosses go, I cannot imagine one so captivating.”
She let his hand rest a moment but withdrew hers as their fellow seat mate stirred.
Goldia awoke and soon the three were submerged in a convivial conversation. The banter lasted through the day and many small-town stops. Donnie eventually promised to attend Goldia’s sister’s birthday luncheon if he was in town and available. Though doggedly pressed into service by Goldia, his agreement to her terms released him from the guilt of talking her into donating half of her sister’s birthday ham.
“One ham to replace another,” Donnie quipped.
Well after noon, the frequency and duration of the buildings whipping past gave notice of their arrival soon in Kansas City. The ticket man made the official announcement and the passengers who disembarked there readied themselves. The women wiped their children’s (or husband’s) faces and checked their own hair and millinery, while the men adjusted collar and cuff. Others traveling farther along the line eyed the seats of the soon-to-be departed in hopes of better accommodations before the influx of new travelers came aboard. Perhaps a cushion without so many hard springs.
“You know, Alexis, I have always considered traveling west someday myself,” Donnie said cocking a brow to her. “Seeing as how you may need a diversion from our friend Theo there, may I offer to accompany you? Where was it, again? Prescott, Arizona?”
“Oh, my,” Alexis stammered. Deep inside, she truly wanted to accept such an offer. This was signaled by her bright red flush. She knew, however, that not only would she have to decline such a kind, yet impulsive offer, but the speed and transitory nature necessary for this case did not lend itself to indulgences of companionship. She worked alone.
“I do appreciate your gallantry, but I must refuse your offer. Besides, what will your teammates do without your sage guidance?”
As she said that, many of the base ballers were clowning about the car. Normally such horseplay was frowned upon and squelched, but a hint of the enchantment from the night before still hung in the air and about the boys. Therefore, instead of harsh judgments, many a kind eye shone with good cheer upon them.
“Those boys do not listen to a ‘sage’ word I say, unless it is preceded with ‘I’m buying’. I can be absent for a good long while before they would notice.”
“I think you underestimate your leadership skills,” she said as the first baseman hailed him with news of their departure soon.
“They will eventually have to leave the O’Banyon Academy, but . . . I can sense you are trying to lower me to Earth gently, so I will take my leave. I will carry our time together in my heart.”
Goldia jabbed Alexis hard in the ribs and gave her an admonishing glare.
“There is one thing you could do for me if it’s not too much trouble,” Alexis asked tentatively.
This brought a wink from Goldia and near apoplexy from Donnie. “Yes, Alexis! Ask anything! I am but your humble servant.”
“I need to check in with the telegraph office and see if my father has sent news of our friends . . .”
Her request visibly deflated both Goldia and Donnie, yet Donnie rebounded more quickly as it offered one more minute to be with Alexis.
“You would like me to summon a parting of the waves which will detain your friend from knowing your movements?”
Without another word to her, Donnie summoned the first baseman. He whispered instructions to him. While he did this the smaller man gazed from Alexis to Theo and back at Donnie. There was a suspicious look in his eyes which led Alexis to the idea he had the entirely wrong impression about Donnie and herself, but she left it as it was. She needed help no matter what the implications. Within a minute the news was spread among the ball players and they acted immediately to create a wall of men.
Theo stood and fought to see clear of them, but could not win.
“Come this way,” Donnie said, taking Alexis by the hand and leading her to the rear of the car. He waved back to Goldia and blew her a kiss. She smiled and waved back wildly.
The two weaved through the midday crowd and the smoke of the station. Soon they found themselves at the telegraph office with her father’s recent missive in her hands.
“He sends word that, among other developments, it appears I am on the wrong track—literally. The three are headed by steamboat down the Mississippi and then on to Houston. One of their friends in St. Louis came by with the information for my father.” She crumpled the news in an angry fist. “I had a feeling they may have taken a different route, but I went with logic instead of intuition.”
“My intuition tells me you may need my help still,” Donnie said, taking her hand once again as he hurried her back to the train. Amid the noise of Tuesday traffic with the potent vapors of the nearby stockyards wafting past, he explained, “There may be a line from Kansas City that runs right down to Houston. You should be able to catch it soon. First, me and my boys will keep your ‘client’ aboard so he cannot follow you.”
She smiled and gave his hand a squeeze and said nothing.
“Let’s get ourselves back on board and make as if we’re moving on down the line like normal, but we will get your bags and slip you off unnoticed. Sound like a good plan?”
She simply nodded, for she was overcome by emotion at his sacrifice and was unsure “thank you” would not come out as some infatuated gibberish instead.
Theo was standing on his cushion when he saw Alexis and Donnie return and sit back down. Goldia was gone and a fat, sweaty man sat in her place. Satisfied at finally having seen her again, Theo shoved away one of the clowning athletes and sat down heavily himself. He did not want to lose his seat in the shuffle.
The men drifted away, but Donnie called them back. The men eclipsed all else in view as Donnie gave them the final battle plan.
They took their seats once again and waited for the train to move.
Alexis found her voice. “If they stay to distract Theo, won’t the ticket man ask them for their—”
“They will not need tickets as they are not going bur a few chugs of the engine.”
“But they might hurt themselves jumping from the train . . .”
“For a living, these men fling themselves in midair to catch little white balls—knowing they are going to come crashing down hard. They will be fine.”
The steam whistle pierced the hum of the platform and the train lurched forward. In unison, all the athletes sprang up and encircled Theo. This time he made straight away to stand upon the cushion.
One burly fellow pushed him back down. “Don’t you know it’s unsafe to stand while a train is leaving the station?”
“Now!” Donnie called to Alexis. They grabbed her bags and fled to the rear exit.
The train was still at a crawl when they stepped out between the cars. Donnie jumped down and signaled for her things. She tossed them one by one and he caught them like infield flies. He trotted sideways, keeping pace with the increasing speed of the train. She stepped out from the edge and felt his strong hands wrap around her waist as he lifted her. He lowered her and slowed his trot, but kept his hands were they were. He released his grip, but his fingers lingered across her ribs.
They stood for a moment and cast questions with their eyes. Knowing the answers were not what either wanted to hear, they both broke away and collected her luggage. Off in the distance down the tracks, they saw the train heading away at a good clip. Like circus acrobats, each ball player leapt from the locomotive and dropped into a roll on the dusty ground. They brushed each other off, jumped up and down excitedly and waved to Alexis and Donnie. Echoing hoots and howls soon reached the pair’s ears.
“See?” Alexis asked, “Those boys love you. They listen to you—even if you tell them to jump from a moving train. How can you leave friends like that behind?”
“I can think of one very powerful reason,” Donnie said as he turned to walk Alexis back to the station. “Shall we? You have a Texas train to catch, Ma’am.”